Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Whitlock Nicholl: Physician and theological writer

Avi Ohry
Tel Aviv, Israel


Whitlock Nicholl, a young man in period dress
Whitlock Nicholl. c. 1821. In Faraday Consults the Scholars: The Origins of the Terms of Electrochemistry by S. Ross. Via Wikimedia. Public domain.

In November 1839, Dr. John Clendinning delivered at the St. Marylebone Infirmary a lecture on the examination of the sick, the principal sources of fallacy attending practical diagnosis, and “on feignted [not “feigned”] and concealed diseases, and insidious complications of disease.”1 The lecturer discussed “hysteria” and other neuroses, and a disease described as “cerebral erethism” (mercury poisoning, erethism mercurialis, or “mad hatter disease”), which is a “neurological disorder which affects the whole central nervous system, as well as a symptom complex, derived from mercury poisoning, described by Dr. W. Nicholl.”1 Nicholl’s name cannot be found today in many books on the history of medicine, but his original description of erethism appeared in 18202 and was cited again two years later.3

Whitlock Nicholl (or Nicoll) (1786–1838), was born in Worcestershire, West Midlands, England. In 1806 at Saville-Row, he heard Dr. Robert Hooper lecture on the practice of physic and materia medica, Dr. John Clarke on midwifery and pediatrics, and Mr. John Pearson on surgery, physic, and chemistry. That year he was also appointed house surgeon at St. George Hospital under Sir Everard Home, and in 1808, resident house surgeon at Lock Hospital. He also studied at the Hunterian School in Windmill Street. In 1809 he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and practiced medicine at Aberdeen. Around 1816, he injured his right hand and lost the use of one finger from a severe cut from a glass bottle, which left him unable to practice surgery and midwifery. He settled as a physician at Ludlow, Shropshire and took an MD degree in 1816 at Marischal College, Aberdeen. In the same year, he was admitted as an extra-licentiate of the College of Physicians of London and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. But in spite of his degrees and memberships (which included MRCS 1809, MD Aberd 1816, Ex LRCP 1817, MD Glasg 1826, LRCP 1826, and FRS 1830), he found it difficult to find work. Therefore, through the acquaintance of his uncle, Sir John Nicholl, he procured a diploma from the Archbishop of Canterbury.4,5 Finally, he moved to Wimbledon, London in 1826, and in 1830, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society.

Nicholl published articles and books on many topics6-10: on general classification of diseases, the history of the human economy (1819), disorders of blood circulation, pathology (1820), tuberculosis, neuro-pediatrics, erethism, and ophthalmology. Mainly through his uncle’s influence, he published five theological treatises: An Analysis of Christianity (London, 1823); Nugæ Hebraicæ and Nature the Preacher (1837); Remarks on the Breaking and Eating of Bread and Drinking of Wine in Commemoration of the Passion of Christ (London, 1837); and An Inquiry into the Nature and Prospects of the Adamite Race (London, 1838). He married twice and had children.

As a friend and personal physician to Michael Faraday, Nicholl and William  Whewell proposed to Faraday the terms electrode, electrolysis, and electrolyte.11

He printed Nugæ Hebraicæ himself and directed the typesetting. He owned a “dictionary of the Hebrew, Samaritan, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldee (Aramaic), and Persian languages, which rendered him great assistance, though the first benefit he derived from it, was the unpleasant conviction, that he had hitherto pursued a mistaken course, and that with the Hebrew alone he would be unable to work out his idea successfully.”12

Nicholl studied Hebrew and analyzed its structure.12 A few Hebrew words are included in his biography.11 Until recently, learning Hebrew was a requirement for many theologians. For instance, in some German high schools, Hebrew was routinely taught as a third “old language” until the 1970s.13 Famous scholars and physicians who studied and used Hebrew include Arnaldo da Villanova, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Johann von Reuchlin, Vesalius, Jean Astruc, Albrecht von Haller, Johann Jacob Reiske, and many others.

On one occasion, when his wife went away for a few days to rest or to recuperate, he  wrote her a letter in rhyme:

I look, and the tear-drop already has started,
I think, and the stream trickles down from its bed;
For thou art away, and that smile has departed,
My Peggy is gone, and that rapture has fled.



  1. Clendinning, J. On the examination of the sick, and the principal sources of fallacy attending practical diagnosis. Delivered at the St. Marylebone Infirmary, November 1839. The London Medical Gazette. New series, Vol I sessions 1839-40. London.
  2. Nicholl W. On Affections of the Cranial Brain, occurring in Infants. Transactions of the Association of Fellows and Licentiates of the Dublin (Ireland) Kings and Queens College of Physicians in Ireland. Association of Fellows and Licentiates 1820;3:117-157.
  3. Cited in: The Foreign Medical Science and Literature (previously The Eclectic Repertory and Analytical Review) 1822;2:480-487.
  4. “Whitlock Nicholl, English physican.” Science Photo Library 2023. https://sciencephoto.com/media/127534/view/whitlock-nicholl-english-physican.
  5. William Munk. “Whitlock Nicholl.” Royal College of Physicians. https://history.rcplondon.ac.uk/inspiring-physicians/whitlock-nicholl.
  6. Nicholl W. Case of defective power to distinguish colors. Medico-Chirurgical Transactions (London) 1818;7(2):177 (and again in 9(2):359).
  7. Nicholl W. An Essay on Diseases resembling the Venereal Disease. The London Medical Repository 1817;8:117, 187, 273, 361.
  8. Nicholl W. Observations on the treatment of purpura hæmorrhagica, with an Account of the Effects of Oil. Terebinthinæ in Some Cases of That Disease. Edinb Med Surg J 1822;18(73):540-543.
  9. Nicholl W. Practical remarks on that cachectic state which is so common a precursor of pulmonary consumption. Lond Med Phys J 1826;1(5):393-403.
  10. Nicholl W. General Elements of Pathology. The Medico-Chirurgical Review and Journal of Medical Science Analytical Series 1821;2(5):133-141.
  11. Ross S. Faraday Consults the Scholars: The Origins of the Terms of Electrochemistry. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 1961;16 (2):187-220.
  12. A Slight Sketch of the Life of the Late Whitlock Nicholl, MD, together with a few manuscripts, written during his leisure hours, and left unfinished at the time of his death. W. A. Wright, Fulwoods’s Rents, High Holborn, London, 1841: 25.
  13. Personal communication with Prof. Axel Karenberg, Institut für Geschichte und Ethik der Medizin Universität zu Köln.



AVI OHRY, MD, is married with two daughters. He is Emeritus Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the former director of Rehabilitation Medicine at Reuth Medical and Rehabilitation Center in Tel Aviv, and a member of The Lancet‘s Commission on Medicine & the Holocaust. He conducts award-winning research in neurological rehabilitation, bioethics, medical humanities and history, and on long-term effects of disability and captivity. He plays the drums with three jazz bands.


Winter 2023  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note

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